Imagine trying to take everything you have learnt about the soldiers who died in the First World War and turn it into a design for a new commemorative statue. All the facts and figures, the personal stories, bravery and death – how do you put it down on one sheet of paper? Where would you even begin? That’s the challenge that Pam Mills, Youth Worker for the Royal British Legion, set pupils from six secondary schools.
The competition began last year and is being co-run by the Royal British Legion and the Tonbridge Memorial Garden Trust. Having come up with the idea of creating a statue, however, Pam says she had no idea how the project would be received by the schools. Mascalls, Hill View, Judd, Hayesbrook, Weald and Hugh Christie were all incredibly supportive, however, and Pam subsequently gave a talk at each school. She prompted pupils to explore the theme of remembrance and asked them if they would submit a drawing for consideration. It was purely voluntary and the work was to be completed in their own time. Over 200 designs were submitted and the Head Teachers from each school were asked to choose their top three to go forward to the next stage of the competition. All the designs were then sent to the Tonbridge Memorial Garden Trust Committee for approval and the pupils of the final eighteen designs then started to work with Pam and renowned local sculptor, Guy Portelli. Under his guidance the pupils honed their designs and turned them into the 3D marquette’s (mini sculptures) that are now on display at the new Portelli Gallery in Tonbridge.
The project has been fuelled by the pictures, life stories and in some cases the personal possessions of the men remembered on the Tonbridge memorial wall and all the information has been collected by Pam, Lyn Hams and a research analyst, Dave Strawbrick. Pam’s also being going into the older schools in the area to read their logs and diaries and has found out that local children made socks and mittens to send to the front line. Slade School dug up their playing field and turned it into one huge vegetable patch and Judd carried out collections for the Kent Prisoner of War fund.
Sadly Judd was also the first school to be directly affected by the death of an ex-school boy. Noel Baker from Penshurst was just 17 when he died. He joined up in May and died in August. Pam says that being able to use the town’s history when she talks to the children makes it hit home. To be able to say ‘the youngest man to die from Tonbridge was seventeen, that’s two years older than you, how do you feel about that? It gets a reaction.’ ‘Every time I go into the schools I like to ask the kids lots of questions about why they designed what they did and what key facts about the war they know. One of the girls at Hugh Christie was making her sculpture out of wire so we made it into barbed wire and spoke about no man’s land so she learnt about that. It has been a huge learning process for these kids, not just about art but about history.’
Following a fantastic launch exhibition held at the Tonbridge Castle Chambers last week, the top eighteen marquettes are now on display at the Portelli Gallery in Tonbridge and it is now down to members of the public to choose their favourite design. Voting slips are available at the exhibition and the winning sculpture will be turned into a bronze commemorative memorial for the Tonbridge Memorial Garden by Guy Portelli.
All of this has been made possible by Pam’s incredible efforts to raise money. There has been no cost to the schools whatsoever and all the materials have been paid for by local donations and a joint busking event that Pam organised in Tonbridge last year called ‘Busking for the British Legion’. The proceeds were split between the Legion and the Tonbridge Memorial Garden Trust and the funds for the entire Tonbridge WWI commemorative project now stands at £9,500 but it’s not enough and Pam is still seeking sponsors and donations to carry the project forward. (For further details please email her at email@example.com)
Pam, Lyn and Dave’s research has also unearthed several men whose names have been missed off the town’s memorial wall and Pam has been seeking permission to have those names added. The joint project doesn’t finish with the statue, however, and Pam hopes to raise enough funds to make all the town’s social and military history available through a comprehensive free-to-view website linked to the Memorial Garden Trust. She also hopes to present the information in book format to the local churches and library.
Pam is obviously thrilled with the outcome of the project so far and says ‘the kids that I am working with have been absolutely phenomenal and their art work is exceptional. They have clearly thought about what they are doing and they have put a lot of respect into what they are doing and you can see it in the end results.’
Many thanks to Pam Mills for taking the time to chat to me about the project. Her enthusiasm and dedication is infectious and I can’t wait to see which statue is chosen. For news updates please follow Pam on Twitter
The exhibition is running until 30 April 2014 and you can see it at the newly opened Portelli Gallery run by Teresa Seamer at Unit 6, The Pavilion Shopping Centre, Tonbridge, Kent. TN9 1EL. (It’s above Gorgeous George and you can also view other local artists such as Trisha Wood, Mike Flight, Scudder, Matty Bray and Danial McGowan.)